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2014-15 College Basketball Preview: America East Conference

With five different teams capable of grabbing the title of America East Conference champion, it's going to be a long, intense and exciting 2014-15 season.

Albany surprised the conference by winning the league tournament on its home floor last season, and leaving regular season runner-up Stony Brook out in the cold. This year looks to be wide open for the championship with more than half the league capable of claiming they are the favorites.

But any followers of the conference knows that winning the regular season title is no guarantee to reach the NCAA Tournament. Here is how the race to be crowned champion shapes up for the 2014-15 season.

1. Hartford Hawks

Last Year: 17-16 (10-6), Semifinals America East Tournament

Departures: Evan Cooper

Key Returns: Mark Nwakamma (15.3 ppg), Yolonzo Moore II (9.8 ppg), Corban Wroe (6.3 ppg), Wes Cole (42.9% 3PT)

After only losing one main player to graduation, Hartford is more than ready to take on the America East Conference with their hopes of finally winning an America East title. This year's senior class is the one that had an 0-13 start their freshman year. They remember what it was like to be that team and they're going to do anything to aim for the top. With a few new additions to the team, they should take the conference by storm.

The Hawks' trip to Australia over the summer not only showcased their 6-7 star freshman John Carroll, who managed a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) in his first collegiate game, it also tested their abilities with a shorter shot clock and longer 3-point line. Bold prediction? Carroll is on his way to becoming the next Mark Nwakamma.

2. Stony Brook Seawolves

Last Year: 23-11 (13-3), CBI first round

Departures: Dave Coley, Anthony Jackson, Eric McAlister, Ahmad Walker

Key Returns: Jameel Warney (14.5 ppg), Carson Puriefoy (13.0 ppg)

With the loss of two key starters, it's up to the America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney, and Carson Puriefoy to keep the Seawolves at a steady level of performance. With an injury to redshirt freshman Roland Nyama, and a relatively younger team, Steve Pikell has a lot of work ahead of him with a nonconference schedule that features big name schools such as Georgia, Princeton and Washington.

The opening of a new arena will give the Seawolves a big boost for home games. Now they will be able to accommodate more of their fans and still have space to move around. With more fans, there's more energy and a tougher atmosphere for other teams to play in.

3. Albany Great Danes

Last Year: 19-15 (9-7), NCAA 2nd round

Departures: John Puk, DJ Evans

Key Returns: Peter Hooley (15.7 ppg), Sam Rowley (11.5 ppg)

Over the last two years I've learned to never count out the Albany Great Danes. They have battled from down in the pack to make the championship game the last two seasons, and both have seen them win the conference title on their opponents' home court.  That's two seasons of NCAA appearances, but this season will be even tougher without the team's best 3-point shooter and the loss of some height from last year.

They still have their Australian connection, with Peter Hooley and Sam Rowley showing clear signs of leadership even last year. Being Albany's top scorers, they have a lot of responsibility this year. Will they still be able to pull out the stops when needed or will there be a new America East Champion this year?

4. Vermont Catamounts

Last Year: 22-11 (15-1), NIT first round

Departures: Brian Voelkel, Luke Apfeld, Sandro Carissimo, Josh Elbaum, Candon Rusin, Clancy Rugg,

Key Returns: Hector Harold (5.0 ppg), Kurt Steidl (48.8 % 3PT), Ethan O'Day (7.4 ppg)

Losing six key players is a big blow to any team. The Catamounts are going to have an adjustment period where they figure out where these new players fall in. As one of two seniors, and the only one to get playing time last season, Harold is going to be the glue that holds the team together. He and his fellow upperclassman have watched as the America East Championship title has been stripped from them once on their home court and last year during the semifinals by the Albany Great Danes. They're going to be determined to keep up their success. While it may not be quite as good as their 15-1 conference record, they have a chance at finishing in the top four.

5. Binghamton Bearcats

Last Year: 7-23 (4-12) America East Quarterfinals

Departures: Roland Brown, Rayner Moquete, Robert Mansell, Alex Ogundadegbe, Chris Rice

Key Returns: Jordan Reed (15.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg), Yosef Yacob (11.5 ppg), Nick Madray (3.7 rpg), Marlon Beck II (2.9 apg)

The Bearcats gave some of the top teams in the conference a bit of a scare last season with close games against the top four, two which decided in over time. Despite losing quite a few seniors, the team didn't lose its fire power. Junior Jordan Reed lit up the stats sheet all of last year, leading the team in both points and rebounds. They've also gained some height with their freshman class. Only one player on the team falls under the 6-0 mark. With Reed's ability to connect, the youth and height of the team, they're going to be a tough contest for the top of the conference again. Oh, and starting off the season by playing Notre Dame will do nothing but benefit them.

6. UMBC Retrievers

Last Year: 9-21 (5-11) America East Quarterfinals

Departures: Chase Plummer

Key Returns: Rodney Elliot (15 ppg), Malik Garner (6.0 ppg)

The UMBC Retrievers gave quite a few teams a scare last season, while also beating both Albany and Hartford in close games. With a team of mostly underclassman this year, they're going to need someone to step up. Chase Plummer is gone leaving Rodney Elliot to attempt to keep up the numbers he put on the board last season. If he can average 15 points a game again proving it wasn't just a fluke season, the Retrievers might have a chance.  But a lot rides on if the underclassman can adjust to the college paced game quickly, and learn to work together as a team.

7. Maine Black Bears

Last Year: 6-23 (4-12) America East Quarterfinals

Departures: Xavier Pollard

Key Returns: Zarko Valjarevic

On paper, Maine basketball looks like it has everything going for them. They didn't have any seniors last year and currently only have two on the roster for this year. They boast four players at 6-8 or taller. And the core group is made up of sophomores who've gotten the lay of the land. The end of their last conference season didn't look so good. In a three-way tie for dead last, Maine bottomed out with a 4-12 record. The Black Bears managed to escape dead last by having one less loss overall than New Hampshire. To make matters worse, their best player last year, Xavier Pollard (14.7 ppg) has transferred to Kent State. A little glimmer of hope is that Zarko Valjarevic, their second best shooter (11.3 ppg) is now a senior and will hopefully have the strength to lead Maine to a better season

8. UMass Lowell Riverhawks

Last Year: 10-18 (8-8)

Departures: Akeem Williams, Antonio Bivins

Key Returns: DJ Mlachnik (7.8 ppg), Chad Holley (10.3 ppg), Kerry Weldon (5.4 reb)

UMass Lowell lost two key seniors from last season, guards Antonio Bivins and Akeem Williams. The River Hawks are going to have to find a way to keep their momentum going with a very fresh squad. Boasting eight freshman, they're about as new as you can get. I can see DJ Mlachnik and Chad Holley stepping up to the plate to take over the leadership of this team.

They have a long way to go, but I wouldn't completely count them out. They managed to stay in the middle of the conference standings in the first year playing against mostly Division 1 opponents.

9. New Hampshire Wildcats

Last Year: 6-25 (4-12) America East Quarterfinals

Departures: Patrick Konan, Chris Pelcher

Key Returns: Daniel Dion (8.2 ppg)

New Hampshire is going to need a lot of luck and talent to make its way up the standings this season. Losing both its top scorers and rebounders to graduation, the only player left that topped the stats sheet is Daniel Dion, a now sophomore guard who picked up 2.4 assists per game. While that's not a bad number, he's going to have to find someone new to pass the ball to. Only two seniors are left on the roster and the team is made up of a lot of underclassman. UNH is going to use this year as a transition year to get their freshman adjusted to a more intense game. Unfortunately, I don't have much hope for them in the standings.